This summer has been hot — and will get hotter. For the first time since temperatures started being recorded, forecasters say all 50 states will experience above-average temperatures for at least the next three months, according to the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center. This could prove especially harmful to those who work outside in the heat all day, especially new workers who may not know their rights or how to stay safe.
One such worker was a young man in Missouri who died just last week after he overheated on his fourth day of work, according to local news reports. In response, the head of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration in nearby St. Louis called the death “tragic and preventable.”
With no end in sight to the extreme heat across the country, laborers who work outside are unlikely to experience a cool day for at least the next few months. With that in mind, here are answers to some of the biggest questions about the rights of outdoor workers and the obligations of their employers.
Does OSHA Have Any Rules About Working Outside in the Heat?
Unfortunately for workers, OSHA does not require employers to provide heat in the winter and air-conditioning in the summer. However, OSHA does require employers to provide a safe working environment, which includes protecting their employees from extreme heat by allowing for adequate breaks and hydration.
For employers, OSHA recommends they establish a complete heat illness prevention program. This entails providing workers with water, rest and shade, modifying work schedules as necessary, training workers about heat-related illnesses and its prevention, and monitoring workers for signs of illness, although they are not required to do so.
What Can Workers Do to Stay Safe While Working Outside?
Staying cool in the heat boils down to three things: water, rest, and shade. OSHA says workers should drink water every 15 minutes to stay hydrated, even if they don’t feel like they need it. Hydrating alone is not enough, though. The body’s core temperature can rise to dangerous levels while working in the heat, and if workers don’t take periodic breaks to cool off in the shade, they will develop heat illness.
Workers that are laboring in the heat for the first time, or workers who have spent time away from the job, should be sure to take extra precaution until their bodies acclimate to the extreme temperatures. OSHA recommends that such workers have their workloads increased gradually, and take more frequent breaks until their body has gotten used to working in the heat.
What Are the Symptoms of Heat Illness?
Heat illness can manifest itself in different ways, depending on the severity of a worker’s dehydration and exhaustion. One form of heat illness is heat exhaustion. Symptoms of heat exhaustion can include dizziness, headaches, and weakness. If left untreated, more severe symptoms like cramps, nausea, and vomiting, and an increased heart rate, can develop.
Another form of heat illness is heat stroke. A worker with symptoms of heat stroke will look unwell because the illness manifests with red, hot, and dry skin, a fever, and confusion. If they don’t get treatment in time, they could faint or begin convulsing. If someone does become ill from the heat, OSHA recommends that a supervisor be contacted, and if no supervisor is available, call 911. Someone should make sure to stay with the ill worker until help arrives.
What Can an Employee Do About an Unsafe Workplace?
Even though an employer is not required to provide heat or air conditioning, the work environment must be free of safety hazards. This includes extreme heat, which can be deadly when workers do not stay hydrated and receive regular breaks.
If you are a laborer who works outside in the heat, you are entitled to a safe working environment. If this is not the case, you should report your employer to OSHA without fear of retaliation, because they are not only breaking the law, but they are also putting your life at risk.
Outdoor workers in a variety of fields are exposed to many different types of risks while on the job. Construction workers are among those most susceptible to a variety of injuries. For more information on what risks they face and how they can go about addressing them, read our workers’ rights information page.